Just In Time

Apart from making balloons float and making you sound like a chipmunk, helium is essential to the superconductor industry, and is a crucial ingredient in MRI scans as well as other medical applications. Numerous other applications also require helium, such as quantum mechanics and space technology.

Running out of helium. Image Credit: Hugh Venables

In recent years, experts have been worried about helium reserves being depleted. Ironically, it is the second most abundant element in space. Since helium is a lot lighter than air, a lot of the Earth’s helium supply quickly seeps out into space. While this means we can never really run out of helium in the universe, harvesting it would become increasingly costly.

The world relies on the US for 75% of its helium supply, and based on estimates, the American reserve can only produce enough to last until 2018, 2020 at best.

But fear not: a large helium reserve has just been found in Tanzania. Scientists from Durham and Oxford University, in collaboration with Helium One, used seismic imaging and geochemical sampling to find the new reserve, on the postulation that volcanic activity is critical in the production of helium. Durham University graduate student Diveena Danabalan presented the team’s findings at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Japan.

Current extraction methods include natural gas processing, wherein helium as a by-product of radioactive decay of uranium and other heavy elements are extracted. The new exploration strategy predicts the location of helium reserves by mapping out volcanic activity that would produce enough intense heat as to extricate helium from ancient rocks. This helium would then try to escape upwards and end up in shallower gas deposits, such as the one recently found in the volcanically rich Rift Valley in Tanzania, which can supply an estimated 1.2 million scanners.

1.2 million of these.

“We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley,” Oxford University’s Chris Ballentine said. “This is a game changer for the future security of society’s helium needs, and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”

Finding the Sweet Spot

While this new method presents an effective way to find mother lodes of helium, the researchers still have to work on finding the spot where the helium reserve is not too close to a volcano—so it doesn't mix with other volcanic gases, since the process to segregate them would be time-consuming and ultimately expensive.

“We are now working to identify the ‘goldilocks zone’ between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes, where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is ‘just right,’” Danabalan said

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